In 2010, Lindsey Stanek was living in New Mexico, working at a veterinary clinic, and sleeping in a 30-foot camper.

A few years earlier, her fiancé Jim was sent home from serving in Iraq — and returned with too many acronyms and not enough help. During his time in the army, he developed a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Lindsey had a hunch that pairing him with an animal, like one of the dogs at her clinic, could be a powerful form of therapy. So she adopted one: a sweet, slobbery pup named Sarge. Things were looking up — that is, until they started to see how many tens of thousands of dollars it would cost to train Sarge into a service dog. That’s when the idea for Paws and Stripes leaped into motion.

“At first, it was just to help him,” Lindsey says. “But then we wanted to see who else we might be able to help.”

Today, Paws and Stripes has helped over 200 veterans and their families, rescued more than 100 shelter animals, and graduated over 77 teams of veterans and dogs. “We want to provide a better way to live for these men and women who come to us after they’ve tried everything,” says Lindsey. “We’re sort of their last hope.” And Lindsey couldn’t have made such a huge dent in the world without finding a team that believes in those things too. “Without them, none of this would’ve been possible.”

Going with the flow

The wild thing about all of this? Lindsey had no formal experience running a business before she jumped right into the nonprofit world. That spunky, mission-inspired attitude spreads right to the rest of the team. “We call it heart work, not hard work,” she says.

Paws and Stripes is a nonprofit, which means that some days, people’s duties are scattered all over the place — from counseling veterans to writing grants and everything in between. That blurriness is a benefit because it encourages the team to learn more about areas they might not have direct experience with, just like Lindsey did when she first scribbled down the idea in her camper. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles at a nonprofit,” says Becca Anderson, Paws and Stripes’ Director of Administration. “Yes, it’s not my job, but it doesn’t matter. I can afford to spend some time helping you with that. All of these things together keep the wheel rolling.”

A couple of months before their annual gala, the director of development left them in the lurch. The gala is Paws and Stripes’ biggest fundraising event of the year, and it also doubles as a graduation ceremony for the team. Lindsey desperately needed help, so she asked her team to pitch in, even though some folks weren’t trained in the areas that needed TLC. But everyone stepped up. Lindsey believes this happened because her team is deeply linked to their mighty mission — the veterans they serve and the animals they train. Everyone felt so satisfied putting in the extra work because they soaked up new skills and, after everything, were able to throw an event that went off without a hitch. In the end, they collected more money that night than any other event in Paws and Stripes’ history.

Adding fun throughout the day

“Our job can be very heavy,” says Lindsey. One day they may be talking to someone who is suicidal, and the next they’re trying to counsel someone with life-altering injuries. However, Lindsey tries to help the team balance all that emotional weight by folding “constructive shenanigans” into the office. Or in other words, total high jinks. Every Paws and Stripes employee is equipped with a Nerf gun at their desk, and from time to time, they break out into 10-minute “battles.” They let loose, and then, everyone puts their toys away and it’s back to business as usual.

“We’re doing very important work. But we’ve managed to pull off a culture of ease, camaraderie, and fun,” says Becca. “We can jump out of our seriousness for a few minutes, and then we jump back and actually get more engaged in what we’re doing.”

Another way the team injects fun into the everyday is by whisking team-building activities into their training sessions. Every Friday, the team has a staff meeting that addresses “some kind of boring thing,” says Lindsey. “But we always make it fun.” Once a month on those Fridays, they all participate in an activity chosen by a member of the team. In the past, they’ve played Pictionary, Heads Up, Dubsmash, built a structure out of raw spaghetti and marshmallows, and other “ridiculous stuff.” They take the time to do these things because yes, they play nicely together, but they also see it as an opportunity to connect with the people they work with on a more meaningful level.

Non-lame team-building activities

Another inventive Paws and Stripes tradition is something called “Fun Dog Fridays” where people bring their pooches to work. They not only have a ball, quite literally, but they also share some of the the things they’re learning from training service animals with their own pets. Obstacle courses full of tunnels, poles, and hoops are set up, and employees get a chance to run their pets through. It brings some of the tactics they’re learning at work right back home.

Creating traditions

“We take our levity very seriously here,” says Lindsey. Case in point: Paws and Stripes’ first fundraising gala. Before the event, they received a bunch of donations to use in the live auction. The thing was, some of those items weren’t necessarily things people wanted to bid on. Enter, the Rickroll-like tradition at Paws and Stripes. Someone donated an autographed photo of Kenny Rogers, but “it was the most full-on ridiculous thing people had ever seen. And no one wanted to buy it,” laughs Lindsey.

But the Kenny Rogers story doesn’t end there. They held onto the photo, and now from time to time, someone will randomly “get Kenny-ed” at the office. That means that a coworker will surprise them with the Kenny photo “hilariously arranged in their workspace” — and it will scare the living daylights out of them. That person then has to “Kenny” someone else, like a domino you didn’t really want to knock over. “It’s always done in such a way that’s completely jarring.” But the fun serves a real purpose. According to Becca, “I felt super a part of the team when I got Kenny-ed. It’s a rite of passage.”

Giving back is a cycle

“People who put a lot into our work should also be able to take something out of that for themselves and their families,” says Lindsey. This is especially important in the nonprofit realm, where people don’t usually have salaries with a ton of digits. That’s why Lindsey finds “other ways to compensate for that.”

For full-time employees, Paws and Stripes offers major medical, dental, and vision benefits, along with a paid parental leave program. They also recently implemented a PTO policy for part-timers who have been at Paws and Stripes for a full year. Reworking benefits to fit more common situations saturates them with more meaning.

“It’s so important to invest in people who support you during the hard days and laugh with you during the good days,” says Lindsey. “That’s how we’re able to do better for the people we serve. We just take care of each other.”

Kira Deutch Kira Deutch is a former Gusto editor. She has a background in publishing and content marketing for startups.
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